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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Second Battle of Manassas



On September 8, 1862, Michigan general Alpheus S. Williams wrote home about the recently concluded military events in northern Virginia. Williams's descriptive language left no doubt that the results had been unfavorable to the Union cause: "a splendid army almost demoralized, millions of public property given up or destroyed, thousands of lives of our best men sacrificed for no purpose." And with equal clarity, Williams identified the source of the debacle: "I dare not trust myself to speak of this commander as I feel and believe. Suffice it to say . . . that more insolence, superciliousness, ignorance, and pretentiousness were never combined in one man."

That man was John Pope, and the failed campaign over which he presided has tarnished Pope's reputation for more than 130 years. Known in the North as Second Bull Run and in the South as Second Manassas, the actions between August 16 and September 2, 1862, marked the midpoint of a momentous season that lifted the Confederacy's fortunes from the brink of disaster to near independence. The gray-clad architects of this achievement, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Stonewall" Jackson, would earn widespread renown from their victory at Second Manassas while Pope vanished into the backwater of history, confused about the cause of his defeat until his dying day.


At the outset of the Civil War's second summer, the Union's prospects appeared bright. Federal armies in the West had penetrated into northern Mississippi and Alabama, New Orleans had fallen, and the navy threatened to reduce Vicksburg and reopen the Mississippi River. Along the Atlantic coast, Yankee forces had captured strong points in the Carolinas, and the primary Northern weapon, the Army of the Potomac under its charismatic but cautious leader George B. McClellan, bivouacked within seven miles of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.

The principal disappointment amid this sea of encouragement occurred in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley during May and June. An outnumbered aggregration of Confederates under Stonewall Jackson had dispatched portions of three Union commands and then slipped east to reinforce Lee around Richmond. President Abraham Lincoln recognized that Jackson owed much of his success to the fragmented nature of his Federal opponents. On June 26 Lincoln rectified this problem by creating a unified command out of the wreckage of Jackson's Valley victims, styling the new outfit the Army of Virginia. To lead this force the president selected a forty-year-old West Pointer born in Kentucky and raised in Illinois who brought to the job an impressive portfolio.

John Pope combined family connections, military experience, and the right politics to merit his appointment. He could trace his roots to George Washington, but more important, the general's father had served as an Illinois circuit judge and knew Lincoln well. Pope's father-in-law represented an Ohio district in Congress and maintained a close relationship with cabinet member Salmon P. Chase. Mrs. Lincoln's eldest sister had married a Pope, so it was not surprising that in 1861 the young officer accompanied the president-elect to Washington for the inauguration.


Pope's prewar military career included competent service in Mexico and on the frontier. He received a commission as brigadier general of volunteers in 1861 and demonstrated his skill with a series of minor victories in the West. Pope owed his promotion and transfer east, however, more to his politics than to his military acumen. The Lincoln administration had grown weary of McClellan's conservative approach to the war, a philosophy embraced by the Democratic party and dedicated to the restoration of the Union with minimal damage to the Southern fabric of life. Pope had Republican leanings, radical ones at that, and he offered the administration a counterpoint to the popular McClellan.

While there were those in the army who spoke highly of Pope, by and large his fellow officers considered him vain, self-righteous, and obnoxious. Various colleagues commented upon his quick temper and rudeness in manner and characterized him as a braggart and liar. "We looked forward with keen delight to see this inflated gas bag punctured by the keen rapier of our great commander," chuckled one Confederate.


Pope exacerbated his unenviable notoriety with a series of orders issued shortly after his arrival in Virginia. Three of them reflected the administration's desire to wage a harder war against the rebellious population. They permitted appropriation of civilian property providing reimbursement only to loyal citizens, authorized stiff penalities for guerrilla activities, and required military-aged males within Union lines to take a loyalty oath or be expelled beyond the limits of Federal control. These measures, although only sporadically enforced and mild by late-war standards, secured Pope the particular opprobrium of most Confederates, including Robert E. Lee, who styled him a "miscreant."

Pope intended to inspire his troops with a formula for victory. "Succes and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear," he exhorted his men.

Equally significant would be his proclamation of July 14 addressed to the "Officers and Soldiers of the Army of Virginia" in which Pope intended to inspire his troops with a formula for victory. "Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear," he exhorted his men. Pope's rallying cry found favor with many of the rank and file but rubbed the officer corps, who felt targeted by their new commander's criticisms, the wrong way. It especially infuriated McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, a result neither unintended nor unanticipated by the administration. Pope's insistence that his new army discard overconcern about lines of supply and possible retreat routes (hallmarks of McClellan's timid generalship) would possess a humiliating irony at the campaign's conclusion.

While Pope spent the first month of his tenure ruffling feathers from Washington, his three leading subordinates assumed responsibility for activities in the field. The German-American idol, Franz Sigel, led Pope's First Corps. Sigel had replaced the dashing but modestly gifted John C. Fremont, who refused to serve under Pope. Sigel's qualifications for command rested with his ethnicity rather than his martial prowess. One Federal officer aptly described him as "altogether excitable, helter-skelter, and unreliable as a military leader."


Nathaniel P. Banks commanded the Second Corps, previously known as the Department of the Shenandoah. This prominent Massachusetts politician had served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and left the statehouse in Boston to accept an appointment as major general of volunteers. Jackson had dominated the hapless Banks during the Valley Campaign earning the New Englander ridicule beyond even what his incompetency deserved. One observer noted that had Banks entered the service as a line officer under a strict colonel, "he would, probably, eventually, have become a good regimental commander."



Pope's favorite underling led the Third Corps, although Irvin McDowell enjoyed far less popularity among his men than did Sigel or Banks. McDowell graduated from the United States Military Academy and following a respectable prewar career presided over the Union defeat at First Manassas in July 1861. This unfortunate legacy translated into groundless rumors of McDowell's alleged duplicity, symbolized by a ridiculous straw hat which some soldiers considered to be a signal to protect him from Confederate fire. False reports about McDowell's excessive drinking combined with factual depictions of the general's gargantuan appetite to paint an unflattering and uninspiring portrait.

Poor leadership compromised the army's enthusiasm that summer, but so did the discouraging strategic circumstances confronting Pope. His original mission included protecting Washington and the Shenandoah Valley, operating against the Virginia Central Railroad, and, in concert with McClellan's offensive, threatening Richmond from the west. By July 2, however, Lee had driven McClellan from the Confederate capital during the Seven Days' Battles, and a month later the Army of the Potomac received orders to board ships and return to northern Virginia to unite with Pope. Thus Pope faced the challenge of opposing any Confederate push to the north until McClellan's men could arrive, preferably via Fredericksburg and up the line of the Rappahannock River. Achieving all these goals with a dispirited army of barely 55,000 troops presented Pope and his men with a daunting assignment.

Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia well understood the strategic situation and its potential rewards. The fifty-five-year-old Virginian had assembled a collection of disparate commands to defeat McClellan during the Seven Days and in July detached three divisions under Stonewall Jackson to keep an eye on Pope. As long as McClellan remained within striking distance of Richmond, however, Lee could not afford to deprive the capital of its mobile defenses.



Early in August, Lee had accumulated a variety of evidence that foretold the departure of the Army of the Potomac from its position below Richmond. Then on August 9 Jackson thrashed Banks in a convincing if imperfectly fought engagement at Cedar Mountain north of the Rapidan River, intimidating Pope and seizing the initiative from the Federals. McClellan's imminent flight and Banks's defeat offered Lee the opportunity he coveted. He ordered the right wing of his army under James Longstreet (the Confederate government had not yet authorized the formation of corps) to march northwest and join Jackson near Gordonsville, a vital rail junction linking Richmond with the Shenandoah Valley and northern Virginia. Lee's job would be to "suppress" Pope before McClellan could reinforce him.

Jackson and Longstreet brought some 55,000 soldiers to the task, most of them veterans of the victories around Richmond, and Lee's lieutenants suffered from none of the shortcomings that handicapped Pope's corps commanders. James Longstreet, a classmate of Pope's at West Point, was a forty-two-year-old transplanted Georgian. He distinguished himself as Lee's most effective subordinate during the Seven Days and would remain a trusted, if occasionally controversial, member of Lee's inner circle throughout the entire war. Jackson's fame exceeded Lee's at this stage in history. The Virginian's reputation earned at First Manassas and in the Valley made him the most admired (and feared) figure in Confederate gray.

Indeed, it was Stonewall who urged Lee that the united Rebel army should strike Pope immediately. Two small divisions under Jesse L. Reno, a portion of Ambrose E. Burnside's North Carolina command, had already arrived via Fredericksburg augmenting Pope's strength along the Rapidan. If the Confederates moved quickly against the Federal left flank, they could sever the reinforcement pipeline from Fredericksburg and catch Pope's whole army with the Rappahannock River at its back, possibly crushing it in the process.


Lee agreed but opted to delay the attack until Southern cavalry under his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, could execute a raid to destroy the Orange & Alexandria Railroad bridge across the Rappahannock in Pope's rear. By August 17 both Longstreet and Jackson poised in concealed positions south of the Rapidan waiting for Fitz Lee and the signal to launch the offensive scheduled for the next day.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, no one had told the young cavalryman that Lee's plan depended upon his prompt appearance. Fitz Lee tarried en route to collect supplies, forcing his uncle Robert to postpone the advance. Even these revised plans came to grief when on the night of the seventeenth a mounted Union patrol splashed across an unguarded ford on the Rapidan and surprised Confederate cavalry chieftain J.E.B. Stuart at his headquarters early the next morning. Stuart barely made good an escape which cost him his cape, a new plumed hat, and a great deal of pride. One of Stuart's aides did fall captive to the Union intruders, surrendering two satchels of dispatches he carried containing Lee's orders for Pope's undoing.

Thus warned of his impending demise, Pope began a hasty withdrawal to the Rappahannock, crossing that watery barrier on the night of the nineteenth to twentieth. "We little thought that the enemy would turn his back upon us this early in the campaign," Lee told Longstreet in a feeble attempt to joke about the disappointing turn of events. The Confederates pursued, many of them fording the Rapidan "guiltless of any clothing below the waist" but could not prevent Pope from placing the Rappahannock between them and their quarry. The Federals thus scored the first strategic point of the new campaign.

As the armies glared at one another from opposite banks of the Rappahannock, each commander confronted a quandary. Pope had to provide a secure corridor for reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac. Those fresh troops might arrive from Fredericksburg, requiring Pope to protect his left flank downstream on the Rappahannock. McClellan's units could also disembark on the Potomac at Alexandria and employ Pope's direct supply line, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, to reach the front. Pope knew that this avenue might be breached by skirting his right flank and gaining his rear, necessitating Federal vigilance along the upper Rappahannock. The man in charge of coordinating the rendezvous between Pope and McClellan, General in Chief Henry W. Halleck, found his task overwhelming and provided Pope little guidance. Halleck did encourage McClellan to hasten the movement of his army to northern Virginia, but "Little Mac" pursued his assignment with glacial speed, a function both of his natural inclination and his loathing for the arrogant Pope.



Lee's dilemma centered on the realization that he must find a way to engage the Federals. But forcing a downstream crossing of the Rappahannock would expose his army to an attack from the direction of Fredericksburg while shortening the distance that Union reinforcements must cover to reach Pope. Thus the Confederate commander looked upstream to the north and west to find the means of outwitting Pope's defenders.

On August 21 a small body of Southerners slipped across the river at Beverly Ford, but the Federals reacted quickly and Lee recalled his men. The north side of the Rappahannock physically dominated the south bank, and Pope skillfully exploited his geographic advantage. Consequently, Lee shifted even farther upriver, authorizing Jackson to cross at Sulphur Springs, nine miles above Beverly Ford, and approving "Jeb" Stuart's suggestion to conduct a cavalry raid behind Pope's lines.

On August 22 Jackson managed to maneuver a reinforced brigade with a battery of artillery across the river before dark. Heavy downpours that night swelled the Rappahannock beyond fording stage, however, and Jackson worked furiously the next day to reestablish contact with his isolated and vulnerable units.

Meanwhile Stuart led some 1,500 troopers on a daring ride around Pope's right, descending after dark on Catlett Station along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Not only did Catlett provide a home for most of Pope's headquarters impedimentia, but the railroad bridge over nearby Cedar Run offered a tempting target for Stuart's raiders. If the Confederates could destroy that span, Pope's supply line would he broken and, perhaps, the Federals would be compelled to relinquish their tenacious grip along the Rappahannock.

One of the marauders remembered that at 7:30 P.M., in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm, "the bugles rang out . . . half a note of the stirring call—the rest was drowned by a roar like Niagara. From two thousand throats came the dreaded [Rebel] yell, and at full gallop two thousand horsemen came thundering on." The attack caught the rear-echelon headquarters staff and their small infantry guard by complete surprise. "The cavalry rode among the tents and their shock knocked some of the officers out of bed," said one Union observer. "Every man, white and black, high and low, fled on his own hook." While some of Stuart's despoilers pillaged the well-stocked encampment, others attempted in vain to set fire to the saturated bridge over Cedar Run. After midnight Stuart rounded up his high-spirited horsemen and headed back for safe crossings on the upper Rappahannock.


Stuart's failure to destroy the railroad bridge robbed the Catlett raid of its primary strategic potential. The beau sabruer did, however, assauge his bruised ego by avenging the loss of his plumed hat. Among the prizes gathered at Pope's headquarters tent was the Union general's full-dress uniform coat. Stuart wrote Pope suggesting "a cartel for the fair exchange of the prisoners," to which he received no response. As a result, Stuart had Pope's splendid garment displayed in the picture window of a Richmond store and elsewhere in the Confederate capital, where it attracted crowds of "amused spectators."

More meaningfully, Stuart showed Lee captured correspondence verifying the rapid approach of McClellan's men from both Fredericksburg and Alexandria. In fact, John F. Reynolds's division had already reached Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock while the rest of Fitz John Porter's Fifth Corps marched a day behind. Samuel P. Heintzelman's Third Corps had landed in Alexandria and awaited transportation to the front. Clearly the window for Lee to strike at Pope under numerically favorable circumstances was closing fast.

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